Every so often, as surely as night follows day, a film comes along that manages to transport us from our everyday lives and into a time and place that is recalled through memories of better and in a reversal of fortunes, turbulent times. To Kill A Mockingbird is such a film.
In a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee, the small town of Macomb, Alabama is portrayed in the summer of 1932, during the deepest depression that the United States had ever experienced. Over the course of the next year and a half, events will burrow inside this sleepy southern town and the lives of its residents will be transported by actions, ideas, perceptions and convictions that will influence one and all in ways that will ring true for years to come.
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a lawyer and widower, raising two small children, Scout (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford). Into their lives enters a visitor, Dill (John Megna) from Meridian, Mississippi, come to spend two weeks with his Aunt Stephanie (Alice Ghostley). Macomb is a town with nothing to do and if there were, no money to spend on it. The stage is being set for a life shattering episode that will not go quietly into that good night.
Childhood holds its fascinations, its myths, its coming of age and through the eyes of the three children, the audience is allowed to peer into the adult world around them as perceived through the minds and souls of innocence that will be all too easily shattered as time whistles down the track. One of the stories woven so masterfully within its covers is the local urban legend of bogeyman, Boo Radley (Robert Duval), who lives on the same block as the Finch family. In a narration, rather like playing telephone, his persona takes on all the familiar attributes of a raving lunatic, a monster out for blood. His aura becomes the end all for Scout, Jem and Dill as they seek to master the mystery surrounding Boo and the ability to live to tell the tale!
Into this world of innocence, a shattering crescendo of complexity wraps itself in the lives of the townspeople in the form of an alleged rape of a white woman, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox) by a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters). Atticus Finch is called upon to act as counsel for Robinson and in doing so, the stage has been set for a dance with race relations and the exemplary lengths that are gone to in order to allow justice to prevail in the face of malcontent.
The performances throughout To Kill A Mockingbird are stunning. Gregory Peck, as the gentleman lawyer, mired in small town attitudes and thoughts that were so representational in the southern gothic sphere, has collected and held a restrained order to his character, and in the process, he has allowed us all to be on the receiving end of hate as conveyed through the actions of small minds and small people. The children, especially Mary Badham, are siblings of more than a movie making venture. They show the absence of preconceived notions, and the guile of beings before the actions of adults can render their world as lost and gone with the shedding of time.
James Anderson as Tom Ewell is the complete representation of oily slime as Mayella's father. He embodies all of the hate and prejudice that continues to be harboured to this day in the souls of those who would attempt to wield their vision of the way things should and ought to be. He has a foul baseness that lingers like a bad rash as he attempts to invoke his arguments through drunken bullying and hatred. Collin Willcox as Mayella is excruciatingly convincing as the bored, housebound white woman who tries to tempt Tom Robinson into kissing her and through her actions sets in motion a rollercoaster of tragedy to come. Her speech to the assembled courtroom is superb and as the audience, you feel her anger and resentment at having to be put in such a position, having to lie to save face and what little position she has in the town. Brock Peters as the aforementioned Robinson is equally sure in the allotted time he spends on the screen. There is a noble demeanor to his bearing, and yet we are aware of the restrictions that blacks were held to in their relationships with whites at the time.
Robert Mulligan, the director and Horton Foote, the screenwriter, have presented us with a look into our pasts and faithfully etched a portrait of quiet and artfully rendered proportions that draw us into the canvas and the lives of those assembled. We have walked a mile in their shoes and been under their skin. Foote worried about being able to do justice to Lee's novel, but he worried for nothing. He has completely evoked an era that now rests behind clouds of dust, blown by the winds of time into oblivion.
The cinematography by Russell Harlan and the set decoration by Oliver Emert carry us back through the courtesy of black and white to a depiction seen only in old photographs and clouding memories of those who lived in those precarious times. Black and white films seem to have had a curse thrust upon them by the younger generation today, as boring and tedious, but through the courtesies extended by Harlan and Emert, we are richer for those perceptions that would harken back throughout the pages of history.
Elmer Bernstein's film score carries us like an old friend and helps us to make our acquaintances with the characters held within this framework. He has achieved much with a simple theme and persuades us that said simplicity is fulfilled with less rather than more.
To Kill A Mockingbird is beautifully haunting and having been made in the 60's, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, it garners our attention to stop and take the time to truly 'see' what the human race is all about and what it can and should be, if taken over the bumps in the road and onto a path of sincere honesty and purpose. No special effects were needed, no huge Hollywood budget, no splashing of a story that had a happy ending for everyone involved. It is an open book into the realities of a world tilting temporarily off its axis, and being brought back on track through the goodness that sits in the hearts, minds and souls of mankind, if given half a chance.
See it and be amazed at what real moviemaking is all about.